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The power of culture: Insights into Baidu's AI revolution | Updated: 2021-06-16 14:54
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2. Making Simple and Reliable the Bedrock Principle

After rejoining Baidu, Cui went all out to identify management problems by organizing about 100 meetings in 2018, with each session hosting five to seven participants. She was unhappy with some findings, such as making a departing employee a scapegoat for low performance or asking a new recruit to shoulder weighty responsibility.

Baidu's core value has always been Simple and Reliable. Simple means that products are easy to use as well as a work environment that has healthy interpersonal relationships and a no-nonsense communication style. Reliable means everyone is committed to the work and is dependable, doing things in a way that puts colleagues at ease, and always delivers the best results to the next stage.

Cui is one of those who has experienced what it truly means to be Simple and Reliable in the early days of Baidu. She recruited some of Baidu's current executives in person around 2006 to 2008 who were still students then and was the direct manager of some of them later. At a directors meeting in early 2019, she apologized that it was a mistake for her to not talk at depth about core value partly because Baidu was in a talent war with Google. Compared with Google's attractive workplace environment, such as the often-touted swimming pool, free laundry and all kinds of wellbeing facilities and amenities, Baidu seemed pallid, so it had to emphasize other benefits. So at university recruitment events, Cui would mention the after-hours staff e-games competition.

In her review, Cui said that was just a tactic (to woo talent) and intentionally watered down the importance of Baidu's core value. But in the memory of Baidu's VP Xiao Yang, Cui never slackened in holding fast to the principle of Simple and Reliable. "You can be crazy when playing a game, but you still need to ensure top-quality outcomes and delivery when working. High standards and strict requirements are always a big part," said Xiao.

Baidu's guiding faith of Simple and Reliable incorporates the paramount message of working to high standards with no exceptions. It's a stringent rule and an uncompromising code of conduct that steers the company to stay true to the original aspirations of its birth.

Simply speaking, what sets Baidu apart from other enterprises is four-pronged:

1. Rational thinking-based as most of the people in the company have an education background in science, and prefer formal logic and deductive reasoning.

2. Believer in technology as Baidu employees really believe that they can use technology to change the world or accomplish many achievements.

3. Supporter of equality as Baidu fights against any form of bureaucratic leadership and, in conversations, even bans the use of expressions that overemphasize a person's job title or beget unnecessary interpersonal closeness such as addressing someone with phatic additions.

4. Zero tolerance of factionalism because Baidu sees internal cliques and divisions as the biggest taboo.

To give an example of the shared faith in technology, Baidu's founder and CEO Robin Li asked a candidate in a job interview if he believes technology has the power to change the world, as shown in a documentary to mark Baidu's its 20th anniversary last year. Baidu's core R&D investment was equivalent to around 21 percent of its revenue, a high level in the industry. For Baidu, the core value is the guiding star to direct specific actions, so employees must be convinced by solid evidence in answering questions like what we do, how to get along with others and what constitutes the corporate culture.

Over the past three years, what it really means to be Simple and Reliable has been carefully elaborated, explored and demonstrated to the entire staff. Baidu outlined the definition from seven dimensions in 2018, and then accompanied that with a measurable code of conduct in 2020, including three additional aspects especially for management, thus forming a "7+3" culture framework.

Three characteristics of the engineer-orientated culture

In an internal poll to select the golden rules guiding the way to do things at Baidu, the top winner is "to be pragmatic, self-motivated and mission-driven", which is also a clear statement of how engineers get things done.

These three points can both play to the strengths of rational thinkers who are true believers in technology and also mitigate potential drawbacks. But why? Firstly, to be pragmatic means to solve problems, but a rational person may not be willing to charge fearlessly into the fray, and this can be a management problem. Secondly, in a workplace that upholds equality, self-motivation allows staff to have clear goals of their own and be ready to make strenuous efforts. Thirdly, a requirement for engineers is to not to give up before a problem is solved.

These three traits have become appreciated and respected at Baidu for good reasons. In the early recruitment message Cui personally penned, she emphasized that what she values most is the capacity of the engineering team. The context then was that Baidu needed the powerful capacity of engineers to cope with requirements rising from massive amounts of data, distributed computing, online real-time services and users from all over the world. Essentially, this company culture helps prevent engineers from slacking off at work and enables a team to show remarkable capacity. There are many smart people, rational people, but very few can also be "pragmatic, self-motivated and mission-driven". It's no surprise that the culture produced team members who later became successful CTOs at other companies.

In a letter to shareholders after Baidu's secondary listing in Hong Kong, Robin Li highlighted Baidu as a technology company. He said: "When you look at the CVs of the CTOs of major Internet companies, you may find that many of them have worked at Baidu and tempered themselves with Baidu's culture as a technology company; when you see that CEOs of autonomous vehicle startups once worked for Baidu, you may even worry about whether Baidu can maintain its leading position in autonomous driving. But this also shows another side of Baidu: we cultivate technology talent, we export technology culture, we get more companies to see the value of technology and then increase their investment in it, and thus we help build the technique backbone of the Chinese internet, which is significant."

Baidu is now also seeing the return of former employees who left during its peak days. For example, Hou Zhenyu, Xiao Yang and Wang Fengyang all quit after working for about eight years, either to launch startups or take positions at other big companies. But they are all back to Baidu and working as VPs. "They are familiar with their work at Baidu and bring back external perspectives so there's little need to orientate again. They are well informed of what's going on outside so they know how to get things done right and make new changes at Baidu," said Cui.

Some people have criticized Baidu for not being able to retain talent, but now the talents are back, a development Cui believes shows the gravity of Baidu's company culture. "The real attraction is Baidu's culture of being pragmatic, self-motivated and mission-driven – they didn't earn less after leaving Baidu," she said with a smile.

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